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All Agents Defect: Espionage in the Films of David Cronenberg


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David Cronenberg is that rare filmmaker who is a genre unto himself, such that his name has become an adjective. Yet, when his name is invoked, it’s usually as shorthand for body horror. Certainly, and in spite of his objections, this is to be expected: more than any other director, Cronenberg has examined, in detail both coldly clinical and gleefully perverse, the ways in which psychosexual desire, trauma, and society’s increasing dependency on technology manifest in the gruesome evolution and/or evisceration of the human body. 

Indeed, we see a fresh example of this in the promotion and reception of his latest film—his first in eight years—Crimes of the Future (available on VOD today), despite the fact, for as horrific as many of the images and ideas within it are, it’s not really a horror movie. That said, the last thing I want to do is make another tired argument over what counts as a horror movie. Rather, I want to make the case that Cronenberg deserves to be equally synonymous with a different genre, one that he’s spent as much time exploring as body horror. 

That genre is espionage.

***

As with his other major themes—disease and mutation, biomechanism and evolution, transgressive sexuality and the pathology of fetishism—Cronenberg’s interest in espionage is evident from the earliest phase of his filmmaking career, with the original, 1970 Crimes of the Future. The experimental feature (his second) is set at dermatological clinic is a post-apocalyptic future where women have gone extinct. Cult-like organizations dedicated to various medical, spiritual and sexual practices—including, disturbingly, pedophilia—compete for political power.

Around the same time that Cronenberg was making his experimental films, he was also directing a lot of television, including a short teleplay for the Canadian anthology series Programme X, titled Secret Weapons. Like Crimes, it is set in a future dystopia (this one ravaged by North American civil war) and concerns a lone scientist (here, a chemist who’s manufacture a drug that can enhance fighting skills) sought by competing political factions.

Both Crimes of the Future and Secret Weapons are dizzyingly convoluted, so much so that they prove nigh impenetrable on first watch. This is an intentional artistic choice on Cronenberg’s part, one that he will continue to use throughout his career (although he’ll hone it as time goes on). Before he decided to embark on a career in filmmaking, Cronenberg wanted to be a novelist. Amongst his literary influences were Franz Kafka, William S. Burroughs, Vladimir Nabokov, Philip K. Dick and JG Ballard, all of whom would often load their stories with confounding political subplots so as to hold a mirror up to the widespread paranoia and anxiety spread by the often clandestine political, religious and corporate bureaucracies vying for power in the post-modern world. 

Like those writers, Cronenberg’s work reflects a core tenet of our increasingly dehumanized society: just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean no one’s watching you.

***

After those early films, David Cronenberg helmed two Canuxsploitation flicks—Shivers (1975) and Rabid (1977)—that put a gnarly original spin on the zombie apocalypse by centering them around mutant venereal diseases. As soon as he stepped onto the scene, he’d planted his freak flag. In 1979, the Toronto native released two more films—the stock car sports dramedy Fast Company and the terrifyingly personal The Brood—before firmly establishing himself as a major director within the international horror scene with 1981’s Scanners.

For all of its sci-fi trappings and iconic moments of gore, including the infamous exploding head scene, the film—about competing factions of renegade psychics with telekinetic powers—is, at heart, a corporate espionage thriller. Cronenberg keeps the action and story tightly contained, yet he still manages to tell an epic story about the military and medical industrial complexes inspired by the real-life MK Ultra experiments conducted by the CIA. 

Scanners is the first in Cronenberg’s thematically linked trilogy, with the following installments both released in 1983: The Dead Zone and Videodrome. The former, an adaptation of the Stephen King best seller, made for his first (and arguably only real) foray into the mainstream, while the latter proved his most shockingly unfiltered work up to that point. But despite the disparity in mass appeal, those two films both explore many of the same ideas as Scanners, such that, taken together, they comprise a loose thematic trilogy which we might call The Assassin Trilogy. 

In the Dead Zone, Christopher Walken’s car crash survivor awakens from a years-long coma to discover he’s been gifted (or cursed) with psychic abilities. When he runs into a popular nationalist politician on the campaign trial, he is given a horrible glimpse into the near future: the would-be senator eventually becomes President of the United States and, in a moment of religious fervor, kicks off nuclear Armageddon. The last third of the film becomes a perverse spin on the ‘70s paranoid conspiracy thriller—namely, Alan J. Pakula’s ultra-bleak masterpiece The Parallax View—in which we find ourselves rooting for the political assassin.

In Videodrome, Max Renn (James Woods), the sleazy head of a late night cable television channel, falls down a nightmarish rabbit hole of psychosis and biochemical mutation after he discovers a series of seemingly real snuff films. It’s ultimately revealed that the films are the creation of a right-wing cabal that wants to reverse what they see as the moral decay of western civilization by using violent and sexually explicit media as psychic weapons against the populace. Max is initially brainwashed into becoming their assassin, before a competing group turns the tables and recruits him to kill his would-be masters.

In its examination of brainwashing and political treachery, as well as its specific story beats, Videodrome could very well be viewed as Cronenberg’s gruesome, XXX remake of Jon Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate, one of the greatest and most influential espionage movies ever made. 

It is also his most political film; one in which he explicates the ideas he touches upon in Scanners and The Dead Zone. This explication comes by way of a line of dialog in the first half of Videodrome, when Max is warned by an associate to stay away from the title organization: “It has something you don’t have. It has a philosophy. And that is what makes it dangerous.”

Cronenberg is amongst our least judgmental storytellers, such that even at their most shocking, it’s hard, if not outright impossible to read his work as cautionary tales. However, it’s clear from this section of his filmography—especially The Dead Zone and Videodrome—that he views zealotry, particularly in service to right wing ideology, as far greater threats to humankind than any technological or transhumanist evolution.

***

After scoring the biggest hit of his career in 1986 with The Fly, Cronenberg began moving away from the strictures of genre, into far stranger territory. And of all the films he’s made, none has ever proven as strange as his unlikely 1991 adaptation of William S. Burroughs’s infamous Beat classic, Naked Lunch.

Long considered unadaptable, the novel has no plot to speak of, but is comprised of hallucinatory “routines”—equal parts comic and nightmarish in their depiction of explicit sex, violence and scatological action—which Cronenberg combined with scenes from other of Burroughs’s work, episodes from his real life (most notably the accidental murder of his wife, Joan Vollmer, during a drunken game of William Tell) and a paranoid plot that borrows heavily from film noir and exotic spy films of the Cold War era.

The film is rife with the double agents, handlers, controllers, bagmen, fronts, cutouts and honeypots you expect to find in traditional espionage stories, only here they come in the form of sentient insectoid typewriters with talking asshole-mouths, giant reptilian mutants that excrete narcotic jism from phalluses that sprout through their heads, gender-and-species-bending figures who feast on human flesh and practice dark ritual magic. 

Yet, for as outrageous and absurd as Naked Lunch is, it contains the most penetrating musings on the existential nature of spy craft this side of John le Carré: “Homosexuality is the best all-around cover an agent ever had…”; “An unconscious agent is an effective agent…it’s your instincts that make you such a good operative…”; “All agents defect, and all resisters sell out. That’s the sad truth…”

Two years later, Cronenberg followed Naked Lunch with another meta-narrative adaptation: M. Butterfly. Based on David Henry Hwang’s stage play (itself loosely based a true story), the film sees an French diplomat (Jeremy Irons) engage in a passionate affair with a female Beijing opera singer (John Lone) who he discovers is not only actually a man, but a spy for the Chinese government sent to seduce him into revealing classified information

One of Cronenberg’s most underseen and underrated works, M. Butterfly holds up exceptionally well today, not necessarily as a trans drama (although it certainly approaches its subject matter with more sensitivity and sympathy than other, similarly-themed films from the same time) but as a damning indictment of white, Western orientalist fantasies and naivety.  

Both Naked Lunch and M. Butterfly use the trope of secret identities to examine the psychic toll placed upon individuals by repressive regimes, in so doing showing that it’s not the so-called sexual deviants that are truly depraved, but the supposedly lawful societies which inflict their heteronormative strictures upon them in the name of power.

***

After bringing yet another seemingly unadaptable book to screen by way of JG Ballard’s Crash, Cronenberg returned to more traditional (on the surface, at least) science fiction in 1999 with eXistenZ (1999), which combined the (literally) visceral biotech of Videodrome with the labyrinthian political machinations of those early works to look at other potential avenues of transhumanist evolution: virtual reality and video games. As in Crimes of the Future, Secret Weapons, Scanners and Videodrome, the core plot is but a small part of a larger, more complex story, the true nature of which is reveled to us only in the closing moments. 

Given how intertwined modern intelligence agencies are with the organized crime, it was only a matter of time before Cronenberg delved into mob underworld. On the other side of the new millennium, he teamed with actor Viggo Mortensen for two back-to-back gangster films:  A History of Violence (2005) and Eastern Promises (2007). In the former, Mortensen plays a psychotic mobster pretending to be a decent family man; in the latter, he plays an Interpol agent pretending to be a mobster in order to infiltrate the Russian mob. 

As in Naked Lunch and M. Butterfly, the conceit of secret identity is adopted to examine the way subconscious desire refuses to remain suppressed.

***

Cronenberg’s entered his late-career stage after Eastern Promises with a handful of films that proved underwhelming with critics and fans (although they all have their staunch defenders) A Dangerous Method (2011), an adaptation of Christopher Hampton’s play The Talking Cure about Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud’s developing psychoanalysis; and Cosmopolis (2012), an adaptation of Don DeLillo’s novel about the collapse of a tech billionaire’s finances and mental state amidst a stock market crash. 

Again, both films focus on small, personal stories backdropped by world-shaking political events just beyond the frame. In the former, it’s the growing specter of fascism in the lead-up to World War 2; in the later it’s an anti-capitalist uprising (although Cronenberg’s film was made post-Great Recession, post-Occupy Wall St., the ever-prescient DeLillo published his novel prior to both). Neither would be considered espionage movies in the strict sense, but both of them toe around the genre, particularly Cosmopolis, which contains many of the elements found throughout Cronenberg’s other work: corporate espionage, radical factions and assassins.  

A Dangerous Method, meanwhile, sees Cronenberg explore his Jewish heritage via the Nazi conspiracy that sought to extinguish it, a concept he touched on a few years earlier, by way of Hezbollah, in a 2007 short film titled At the Suicide of the Last Jew in the World in the Last Cinema in the World (in which he also starred).   

***

Cronenberg combined this intense engagement with the contemporary geopolitics with his overriding speculative obsessions—including a return to body horror—in his debut novel from 2014, Consumed, which includes, amongst its various plot threads, a sinister conspiracy carried out by North Korean spies. 

Cronenberg tried to adapt Consumed but was unable to. For several years, it looked as though he was finished making movies (even as his son, Brandon Cronenberg, took up his father’s mantle, directing his own gnarly spin on The Manchurian Candidate with 2020’s Possessor). However, that changed when a script he’d written in 2008 caught the attention of producers.

Taking the same title as his sophomore feature, the excellent new Crimes of the Future—about a couple who conduct live surgery as performance art in a near future where technology has eradicated pain, even as environmental catastrophe has rendered the world nearly uninhabitable—contains yet another intricate and often perplexing espionage plot in which various corporate, governmental and radical political interests wage a shadow war in the name of the future and where Viggo Mortensen again plays an undercover agent and informer. As in so many of his other films, his hero comes to understand that he’s working for the wrong side and must betray his masters in the name of a greater cause.

It’s fitting that Crimes of the Future shares its title with Cronenberg’s earlier film. Although it was not conceived as any sort of career-defining capstone (and indeed, Cronenberg already has another film in development), the way it combines all of his favorite themes, ideas and story beats—including, and indeed especially, the way he uses espionage and conspiracy as a way to decode the murkiest intricacies of human psychology. 

View the full article

Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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